Plan’s Purchase of Company Stock Triggers $6.48 Million Award Against ESOP Sponsor, Shareholder, Board Members & Trustees

November 2, 2014

A $6.48 million judgment against Direct TV satellite television installer, Bruister and Associates Inc.(BAI) its sole owner, Herbert Bruister, and other trustees of  two BAI-sponsored employee stock ownership plans shows plan sponsors and trustees involved in stock purchase transactions where employee stock ownership plans commonly referred to as “ESOPs” and other employee benefit plan buy or hold investments in the stock of plan sponsors or other related businesses the risks of failing to conduct the transactions to ensure that the transactions are prudently performed and otherwise conducted in compliance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fiduciary responsibility requirements.

BAI Lawsuit & Judgment Highlights

The BAI judgment stems from a Department of Labor lawsuit that charged BAI, along with BAI board members and plan trustees Bruister and Amy Smith, and plan trustee Jonda Henry  engaged in prohibited transactions and breached other fiduciary duties under ERISA by causing the plans to purchase 100 percent of BAI’s shares for $24 million in three sales transactions conducted between December 2002 to December 2005.

According to court documents, Bruister, Smith and Henry, as plan fiduciaries, engaged in prohibited transactions by causing the plans to pay excessive prices for BAI stock purchased from Bruister. For each purchase, the Labor Department charged the fiduciaries used flawed valuations prepared by Matthew Donnelly and his firm, Business Appraisal Institute.

The court also found that the three fiduciaries breached their duty of loyalty from start to finish. Additionally, Bruister and his attorney David Johanson went so far as to fire the initial attorney representing the plans because that attorney was too thorough. Moreover, the court found that Bruister and Johanson exercised undue influence over Donnelly’s valuations, and that as a result, Donnelly was not sufficiently independent to provide valuations for the plans.

The court concluded that Bruister, Henry and Smith, in their role as plan fiduciaries, failed to properly represent plan participants’ interests, and that they unreasonably relied on an appraiser who so obviously lacked independence. The court reasoned, “An informed trustee would not have remained idle while the seller communicated directly with the employee stock ownership trust’s independent appraiser and financial advisor to elevate the price at the participants’ expense.”

Although Johanson was not a fiduciary, the court found his conduct worthy of comment because he both was the attorney for the seller and structured each sale.   The court noted that Johanson attempted to influence the valuations in Bruister’s favor, and the testimony Johanson gave at trial did not support his denials. The court even  noted that Johanson coached Donnelly during a break in his deposition to retract his testimony that Johanson represented Bruister individually. “History rebuts Johanson’s suggestion that he did not interfere with Donnelly’s valuations and raises doubts as to each of the subject transactions,” the court said.

The order requires Bruister, Smith and Henry to jointly pay $4.5 million in restitution to the plans and requires Bruister to pay an additional $1.98 million in prejudgment interest. The order also held Bruister Family LLC liable with all defendants for $885,065 and jointly liable with Bruister for $390,604.

Company Stock Investments Carry Special ERISA Risks

Purchases of company stock by an ESOP or other employee benefit plan can create a wide range of risks under ERISA’s  fiduciary responsibility rules. When making investment or other decisions under an employee benefit plan, the general fiduciary duty standards of ERISA § 404 generally require plan fiduciaries to act prudently and solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries. Meanwhile, except in certain narrow circumstances and subject to fulfillment of ERISA § 404,  the prohibited transaction rules of ERISA § 406 among other things prohibits plan fiduciaries from causing the plan to engage in a transaction, if he knows or should know that such transaction is a direct or indirect:

  • Sale or exchange, or leasing, of any property between the plan and a party in interest;
  • Furnishing of goods, services, or facilities between the plan and a party in interest;
  • Transfer to, or use by or for the benefit of a party in interest, of any assets of the plan; or
  • Acquisition, on behalf of the plan, of any employer security or employer real property in violation of section 1107 (a) of this title.

As for all plan investment transactions, detailed, unbiased valuation documentation showing the prudence of any decision to invest or hold the investments of the plan in company stock is critical when determining the initial purchase or sale prices for plan transactions involving company stock.  Since the sponsoring company is a party-in-interest of the plan, holding, must less using plan assets to purchase company stock or other activities resulting in the inclusion of company stock among the plan assets held by the plan creates presumptions of impropriety that impose higher than usual burdens upon the plan, its sponsor and fiduciaries to prove the appropriateness of the transaction.  See e.g., Pfeil v. State Street Bank & Trust Co., 671 F.3d 585 (6th Cir. 2012).  As ESOP transactions to purchase company stock inherently require a host of complicated party-in-interest and other conflict of interest concerns, these risks are particularly heightened.  Employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and sponsors the need to continuously and prudently conduct documented monitoring and evaluations evaluate and monitor the investment of plan assets in company stock,the analysis and decisions about whether to continue to keep and offer this stock under the plan, as well as the qualifications, credentials and conduct of the fiduciaries and others empowered to influence these decisions. The Labor Department’s statement in announcing the Parrot litigation sums up the messages from these cases. “Plan officials are required by law to manage the ESOP in a careful, prudent manner and to act solely to benefit the plan’s participants,” said Jean Ackerman, director of the Employee Benefit Security Administration’s (EBSA’s) San Francisco Regional Office, which. “This action underscores the department’s commitment to protect the benefits that employers promise to their employees.”

In light of these exposures, plan fiduciaries, sponsors and their management, service providers and consultants participating in these activities need to both act with care and carefully document their actions to position to defend potential challenges.

Plans, their sponsors and fiduciaries also should ensure that appropriate steps are taken in selecting the fiduciaries, management and service providers responsible for administering or overseeing the administration of their plans, the selection of vendors, and other critical details.  Appropriate background checks and other credentialing should be done both at commencement and periodically.  Bonding and fiduciary liability insurance should be arranged and reviewed periodically along with their activities.  Documentation of these and other steps should be carefully created and preserved.

When and if a change in stock value or other event that could compromise the investment occurs, consideration should be given as to the responsibilities that such events create under ERISA.  As company leaders often have dual responsibilities to both the company and the plan, it is important that the company sponsoring the plan, its management and owners learn in advance how these responsibilities impact each other so that they are aware of the issues and have a good understanding of responsibilities and options as situations evolve.

Businesses and business leaders that fail to conduct and maintain the necessary evidence that these requirements are met when involving the plan in these transactions risk significant liability.

“Plan fiduciaries have an obligation to work solely in the interest of plan participants,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security Phyllis C. Borzi.in the Labor Department’s October 31, 2014 announcement of the judgment. “When they fail to do so, the retirement security of workers is put in jeopardy, and we will take action to make plan participants whole.”

 For Help or More Information

If you need help reviewing and updating, administering or defending your employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices to monitor or respond to evolving laws and regulations,  drafting or administering programs,  resolving or defending audits, investigations or disputes or other  employee benefit, human resources, safety, compliance  or risk management concerns, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

About Ms. Stamer

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 24 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters.

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.  A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations.   She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications.   You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns  see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail to  cstamer@solutionslawyer.net.

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©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


DOL Sues PBI Bank For Alleged Fiduciary Breach In Sale of ESOP Stock

December 26, 2013

Labor Department files suit to restore losses to the Miller’s Health Systems Employee Stock Ownership Plan

Bank or other plan trustees and fiduciaries of Employee Stock Ownership Plans or other employee benefit plans holding company stock, sponsoring employers and their management should heed the new Perez v. PBI Bank, Inc. lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Labor of the importance of not running afoul of the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act when conducting business sales, bankruptcies or other corporate business transactions involving stock or other plan assets.

The U.S. Department of Labor filed the PBI Bank, Inc.  in U.S. District Court to recover losses to the Miller’s Health Systems, Inc., Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The suit alleges that PBI Bank, Inc., the trustee of the plan, authorized the purchase of company stock for $40 million, an amount far in excess of the fair market value of the stock. The suit also alleges that PBI Bank approved financing for the transaction at an excessive interest rate. Miller’s Health is a Warsaw-based company that manages long-term care and assisted-living facilities. The lawsuit also seeks to remove PBI as a fiduciary and service provider of the plan and to permanently bar it from serving as a fiduciary or service provider to ERISA-covered plans in the future.

ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules generally require trustees and other fiduciaries of employee stock ownership or other employee benefit plans to act prudently and for the exclusive benefit of participants and beneficiaries and abstain from self-dealing or prohibited transactions involving the plan.  Fiduciaries that violate these rules risk personal liability for damages incurred by the plan, restoration of profits realized from prohibited transactions or other fiduciary breaches, as well as attorneys fees and other costs as well as disqualification from serving as a fiduciary for employee benefit plans and other potential civil or criminal relief.

The PBI Bank, Inc. case highlights how these risks can arise when a trustee or other fiduciary is asked to approve the sale of company stock held as a plan asset of an employee stock ownership or other employee benefit plan.

An investigation by the Chicago Regional Office of the department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration focused on a September 2007 stock purchase. The suit alleges that PBI violated ERISA by imprudently and disloyally approving the purchase of stock by the plan.  The suit seeks to require PBI to restore all losses suffered by the ESOP, plus interest. As of September 30, 2012, the ESOP had 2,939 participants and assets of $12,848,000.

At the time of the stock purchase, Miller’s Health managed 31 long-term care facilities under the name of Miller’s Mary Manor and 10 assisted living facilities under the name Miller’s Senior Living. Miller’s Health also operated Theracare, Inc., an Indiana corporation, which primarily provided physical and occupational therapy and speech-language pathology to residents in Miller’s Health facilities.

After conducting its investigation, the department concluded that, as a result of the design of the transaction and the fiduciary breaches of PBI, the stock purchase was not for the primary benefit of participants and did not promote employee ownership in Miller’s Health. As a result, the department concluded that PBI was responsible and liable for violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

When announcing the lawsuit, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security Phyllis C. Borzi said,  “Fiduciaries must act with undivided loyalty to plan participants.  When it comes to ESOP stock purchases, they must ensure that the plan receives full value for its money.”

The PBI Bank suit highlights the challenges that trustees and other fiduciaries often face when dealing with employee stock ownership or other employee benefit plans holding stock of the sponsoring company.  Valuation, purchase, sale, and other decisions about the stock fall within the prudence, exclusive benefit and other fiduciary responsibility rules of ERISA.  These duties attach when the stock is purchased and continue thereafter as long as the stock remains a plan asset.  Additionally sales or other transactions which result in the sale or other disbursement of the stock as asset of the plan, as well as a decision to continue to hold the stock during market or value changes also trigger these responsibilities.

A trustee or other fiduciary exercising discretion or control in name or functionally generally must be prepared to prove not only that its actions are prudent, but also that the value of the stock and other actions involving the plan and its assets were made for the exclusive benefit of the plan and its participants and beneficiaries.   Because of the special issues and perception of potential conflict of interest that often inherently arise when a trustee or other fiduciary makes or influences decisions involving stock held by an employee stock ownership or other ERISA-covered plan, fiduciaries involved in these transactions should exercise particular care to act, and document appropriate evidence that he or it complied with these and other fiduciary requirements.

For Assistance or More Information

If you have questions or need help with these or employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 25 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters.

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals. A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, Solutions Law Press, Inc. and other publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations. She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications. Her widely respected publications and programs include more than 25 years of publications on health plan contracting, design, administration and risk management including a “Managed Care Contracting Guide” published by the American Health Lawyers Association and numerous other works on vendor contracting.  You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

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